[Viewpoint] To Opcon or not to Opcon?

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[Viewpoint] To Opcon or not to Opcon?

Transferring wartime operational control (Opcon) on the Korean Peninsula from the United States to Korea is back in the news.

The issue has been controversial since 2007 when the United States agreed to a proposal from the Korean side that Opcon of U.S. and Korean forces in wartime should be transferred from the top-ranking American four-star general in Korea to a general in Korea’s own armed forces.

To be more precise, the issue was controversial among conservative supporters of the Korea-U.S. alliance because it was proposed by the progressive Roh Moo-hyun and because it was quickly accepted by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and sold to then U.S. President George W. Bush as a made-in-Korea idea without any interagency review in Seoul or Washington.

Since then, the Obama and Lee Myung-bak administrations have calmed things down somewhat by delaying the transfer date from 2012 to 2015 and working out a plan under Strategic Alliance 2015 to make sure everything is in place by then. Still, there are lots of questions about the move in Seoul and not a few doubters in Washington as well.

I do not know whether Opcon should be transferred in 2015. I was skeptical about the Roh-Rumsfeld axis at the time, and reassured by the subsequent delay and orderly process established by Strategic Alliance 2015. Yet it still seems that Opcon transfer needs to move forward based on principles or conditions rather than a date on the calendar.

The first principle, that Korea should as a sovereign nation have wartime Opcon, goes without saying.

The second principle is that no damage should be done to the ability of U.S. and Korean forces to operate together in a contingency. One of the basic rules of military strategy is joint capability. The Combined Forces Command (CFC) is the only joint and combined military command that the United States has joined outside of NATO.

Having worked on the U.S.-Japan alliance, which is not joint and combined, I can verify how rare and valuable it is for U.S. and Korean command elements to work continuously side-by-side. Under Strategic Alliance 2015, the CFC is supposed to be disbanded with wartime Opcon transfer and replaced with a new military cooperation center. That does not sound joint and combined to me.

It will be critical to ensure that cracks do not open between U.S. and Korean forces. On the other hand, there are already some cracks in terms of collaboration between U.S. and Korean command elements because peacetime and wartime Opcon are themselves divided.

Under the arrangement now, command relationships would have to be shifted once the situation moves from peace, when a Korean general commands, to war, when the American general takes Opcon. A lot can go wrong in that transition, particularly if the scenario is ambiguous or the crisis is sudden. The new military cooperation center might just fix that problem.

The third principle is that Korean forces should be sufficiently invested in necessary capabilities before assuming Opcon for wartime contingencies. According to Strategic Alliance 2015, these capabilities include: ground operations command, improved command and control systems, missile defense and closer coordination of Korean and U.S. exercises and capabilities to meet the range of threats posed by North Korea short of all-out war.

The fourth principle is that Opcon transfer must send the right strategic signal to North Korea and China. My earliest concern was that Opcon transfer might be read as a sign of U.S. disengagement, particularly because of the image that Roh was not fully supportive of the alliance and that Rumsfeld was looking for ways to free up U.S. ground forces committed to the defense of Korea. In the years immediately after the 2007 agreement to transfer Opcon, it seemed that Beijing saw the Korean Peninsula as shifting into its strategic orbit, though it is hard to say whether this was because of Opcon transfer or other developments.

I suspect Opcon transfer fed into the Chinese calculation about longer-term strategic influence on the Korean Peninsula given other trends at the time. North Korea also followed the Opcon transfer decision with two nuclear tests, though these were undoubtedly planned.

The question is whether Opcon transfer today sends the signal to the region of solidarity or disengagement between the United States and Korea. To a significant extent, that will depend on how it is viewed at home.

That goes right to the heart of the final principle: that Opcon transfer must be supported by the Korean people. There are still nagging concerns in conservative quarters about whether the move is good strategy. Those concerns need to be taken seriously. The best way to do that is not to debate and decide this issue in the heart of a presidential election, where calm and reason do not always prevail, but instead for a new government in Seoul (and maybe in Washington, too) to take a fresh look next year to decide if all the necessary principles and conditions have been met before moving ahead with the transfer in 2015.

* The author is a senior adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael Green

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